I. The Dialectic of Enlightenment
A. The Project of Enlightenment
The self-proclaimed project of Enlightenment is the subjectification of the individual – the overcoming of all those elements which militate against the autonomous ego’s establishment of itself as a free and self-determining agent, an agent unencumbered by the mystical forces which, in pre-enlightened times, penetrate its consciousness and degrade its worldly existence. A definition of myth: that other-worldly realm in which the contradictions of this world are resolved in an illusory totality at the level of consciousness. For the individual to establish herself as an autonomous subject is clearly to rid herself of mythic thought, to take back the actual conditions of her life and confront the world as that which it really is – the individual must know the world, for only in knowing, only in rational and informed comprehension, is agency possible. To be free is to not only act, but to act according to the dictates of your own will, a pure will free from constraint, a will able to recognize and interpret the concrete situations of its existence as they are, shrouded not in superstition nor myth.
To Enlightenment myth is anthropomorphism; it anticipates Feuerbach in viewing myth as nothing more than the projection of individuals’ fears onto a fictitious sphere. By understanding nature, by analyzing and comprehending its movements, by recognizing that it is not propelled by mysterious forces beyond human comprehension, we are capable of banishing fear, thereby erecting the base which will allow for the future flourishing of truly free human faculties. Autonomy and freedom lay hidden in knowledge; by positing knowledge, by overcoming superstition, we can come to govern a now disenchanted nature, a nature no longer conceived of as a tyrannical embodiment of opposing mystical forces which exist only to repress us. The individual imagines that she is free from fear when there is nothing left to know; nothing can remain outside of human consciousness, for externality is the source of all anxiety. This, then, is the task which Enlightenment sets itself out on: the rational comprehension of the natural world.
“In the most general sense of progressive thought, the Enlightenment has always aimed at liberating men from fear and establishing their sovereignty. Yet the fully enlightened earth radiates disaster triumphant.” The project of Enlightenment has gone horribly wrong; yet reason has failed us not because it has gone too far, but rather because it has not gone far enough. Myth is anything beyond reason; Enlightenment goes beyond reason in abstracting one particular moment of rationality and substituting it as the concept’s sole totality, thereby reverting to myth. Mythic elements are those which allow not for the possibility of their self-negation; myth posits itself as that absolutely singular universal entrusted with the task of total comprehension, blind to its own particularity. The one partiality which Enlightenment believes is the sole guarantor of logical comprehension, but which in actuality is that which drives Enlightenment toward disaster, is instrumental rationality.
B. The Method of Enlightenment
Enlightenment “is the philosophy which equates the truth with scientific schematization”. Technological advancements utilized in the study of the natural sciences present themselves (in their totality) immediately to the enlightened mind as the ideal technique for the deconstruction of the world. The technical starting point is that of rational classification. Modern Western culture above all prides itself on its capacity for logical organization. The project of Western science is a project of ordering, of systematic organization and categorization. But, of course, in order for an object to be classified it must in some way be definable; it must be reduced to a set of common elements which allow it to be compared and contrasted with other objects, the objects being defined as similar or dissimilar on the basis of these shared or unshared elements.
These elements, however, must be fixed; if they are conceived of as having the potential for fluidity or mutation the entire system of classification breaks down, for now all objects, by virtue of their elements’ circumvention of fixity, are potentially all other elements. If one wishes to hierarchize objects A, B, and C, then the first premise one must adopt is that which proclaims that A always equals A and never equals not-A, i.e. B or C. If A is potentially B a system of fixed classification becomes logically impossible, as all categories collapse in on each other by virtue of their objective instability. Enlightenment thought, then, is the systematization of knowledge under a single guiding principle: the identification of a thing which that form in which it immediately presents itself, and the relation of this thing to all other things by means of the development of an abstract equivalence. Unity resides in agreement; the task of science is to comprehend the particulars from the universal – “Knowledge consists of subsumption under principles. Any other than systematically directed thinking is unoriented or authoritarian.”
The essence of this new quantitative knowledge of nature is technology; “It does not work by concepts and images, by the fortunate insight, but refers to method”. Nature becomes that which can be comprehended mathematically. Even those external elements which are by their nature the most distinct and mutually exclusive can be made to conform which each other through their subjection to the mode of universal quantification employed by Enlightenment thought: “even what cannot be made to agree, indissolubility and irrationality, is converted by means of mathematical theorems.” All quality, all emotions and representations of it, in for example religion, philosophy, and art, are pushed to the background, if not totally liquidated, in favor of the new ‘cool reason’.
Immediate living is entirely displaced: “Under the cover of this enmity, emotion and finally all human expression, even culture as a whole, are withdrawn from thought; thereby, however, they are transformed into a neutralized element of the comprehensive ratio of the economic system – itself irrationalized long ago.” Enlightenment thought has no place for that which naturally defies quantitative representation – including human subjectivity – and it is here that the former’s main contradiction becomes explicit. Myth is the projected power of humanity. Enlightenment wants to eliminate myth in order to reinject the individual with her own humanity, but it is able to do so only by totally annihilating all of the latter’s positive content, including human subjectivity and self-consciousness, themselves formerly preserved within mythic elements in a latent and congealed form.
Despite the mystifying and distorted nature of myth, it is nevertheless a proprietor of meaning. There is in superstition a direct and specific representation absent in science. Liberal science contains no such representation, preferring instead pure interchangeability. “On the road to modern science men renounce any claim to meaning. They substitute formula for concept, rule and probability for cause and motive.” The object of inquiry is afforded meaning only through the action of the subject; the external world itself is inherently empty – it is nothing but an abstract assemblage of potential quantities. As meaning is extracted from all objects, every thing becomes identified with every other thing, while at the same time every thing finds it impossible to be identified with itself. All qualities are uniformly dissolved as the equivalence which rules enlightened bourgeois thought expands beyond the merely empirical world to permeate all aspects of social life.
These qualities are liquidated as the dissimilar are made to appear similar through their reduction to abstract quantities. Any phenomenon which attempts to resist such quantitative reduction is dismissed as illusion. “Unity is the slogan from Parmenides to Russell. The destruction of Gods and qualities alike is insisted upon.” As mentioned, religious remnants are not the only fatalities: the culture industry is explicitly highlighted, as it has been typically theorized by various members of the Western Marxist tradition that art represented the last refuge of human creativity and spontaneity. When the aesthetic sphere is conquered by the ratio we realize that we have reached the pinnacle of the schematization of fixed quantities. The work of art has much in common with mythic enchantment: “it posits its own, self-enclosed area which is withdrawn from the context of profane existence, and in which special laws apply.” The wave of Enlightenment equivalence wipes away these special laws as easily as it does those of superstitious magic.
C. Capitalism and Enlightenment
The mode of economic and social organization which corresponds with Enlightenment thought is commodity capitalism. Bourgeois justice and commodity exchange follow precisely the same logic as the scientific method; as Bacon asks, “is there not a true coincidence between commutative and distributive justice, and arithmetical and geometrical proportion”? The language of the economy is derived from the logic of scientific investigation; value, exchange, productivity: what all of these categories have in common is an essence which resides in the quantitative and equivalent; they have no positive content outside of their abstract relations with that which is made through a leveling reduction to be the same. The true nature of schematism – domination – is revealed in modern science as corresponding with the interests of industrial production and consumption. Being becomes that which is manufactured and administrated. “Everything – even the human individual, not to speak of the animal – is converted into the repeatable, replaceable process, into a mere example for the conceptual models of the system.”
The essence of human practice becomes concentrated in the practice itself; what matters is coordination and organization, or, the technical process, as opposed to some conception of a just human end. Bourgeois reason is a reason which no longer posits any substantial or affirmative goals; it “is the organ of calculation, of planning, it is neutral in regards to ends; its element is coordination.” The social individual who has been integrated into the economy of Enlightenment acts or produces not according to the dictates of her own will, in a free, creative, and spontaneous fashion, but acts or produces in such a way so as to merely reproduce the system of domination.
In their discussion of Sade, Adorno and Horkheimer link the sexual activity of Juliette and her acquaintances to the conditions of sport and the reproduction of the system of production: “The teams of modern sport, whose interaction is so precisely regulated that no member has any doubt about his role, and which provide a reserve for every player, have their exact counterpart in the sexual teams of Juliette, which employ every useful moment, neglect no human orifice, and carry out every function.” What is witnessed is a form of social organization completely devoid of any concrete positive goal; “the arrangements amount not so much to pleasure as to its regimented pursuit”.
Work relations become no longer essentially related to the potentialities of collective individuals; the belief that an organization of existing things could achieve their essence in future changes is no longer a possibility. We already saw how the first principle of Enlightenment thought is that of rational identity and bodily fixity: in order to comprehend a thing we must know what a thing is, and in order to know what a thing is we must assign a strictly defined value or essence to it which is incapable of evading immutation. The world of things becomes hypostasized in that immediate form in which it immediately presents itself to us. As the logic of scientific thought begins to permeate social life, then the world of individuals, of concrete social relations, becomes hypostasized as well. The essence of human relations, just like the essence of empirical things, is identified immediately with the temporal appearance the relations take at a specific point in historical time. For us to make sense of our world, according to the techniques of instrumental thought, we must freeze the world, denying it the possibility of potentiality and opportunity. The essential content and the essential organization of the facts of consciousness and the empirical world are reduced to the form of being they factually manifest. Everything particular and partial associated with the specific historical moment is taken to be a universal, including the system of domination, of which the latter’s logic is a part, a cause, and a result.
D. Capitalism and Domination
Under Enlightenment all goals, i.e. any thoughts which envision a future unlike the present, are purged from thought, with one exception: domination. The only end to survive is that already existing one, except now it is rational; domination, violence, and cruelty become systematized along with everything else. Kant maintains that moral forces become immoral ones when they are no longer directed towards liberatory and autonomous ends, but towards reconciliation with power and domination. Enlightenment eliminates this Kantian distinction altogether through the rationalization and concealment of exploitation. The great achievement of capitalist production is the masking of forms of domination by means of the appearance of equivalence. Whereas all previous modes of domination presented themselves immediately in the form of blind and naked force, capitalist exploitation conceals itself behind the veil of the free labor contract, the latter constituting the illusion of equal exchange between producer and appropriator, the concealment of the extraction of surplus-value, and the denial of affirmative species-life. The most important aspect or moment of capitalist domination lay hidden in the phenomenon of commodity fetishism.
excursion 1: commodity fetishism
An understanding of fetishism begins with an understanding of the essence of commodity-structure. The value of all commodities, Marx tells us, is twofold: every object available for appropriation in the marketplace contains both a use-value and an exchange-value, the former referring simply to the object’s practical utility and usefulness to its holder, the latter referring to the worth of the object relative to other objects in the marketplace, measured in a capitalist economy by means of a third object, a universal medium of exchange which has the ability to stand for all objects – money. But what determines a commodity’s price relative to other commodities? How can we tell just how much money a thing is worth? We obviously can not assign a money-value to an object based on that object’s use-value, for all use-values are qualitatively differentiated, rendering it impossible to determine a standard measure of quantification. Exchange-value, being a quantitative measure, is apparently the only form in which a universal standard of value can be expressed. Value comes to be displayed by the quantity of that substance which creates the value (labor) contained within the object produced, a quantity which is measured in the universal temporal units of years, months, days, hours, minutes, etc. We see, therefore, that the value of a commodity is determined by the amount of “socially necessary” labor time needed to produce that commodity, the labor time socially necessary to create the object being defined as “that required to produce an article under the normal conditions of production, and with the average degree of skill and intensity prevalent at the time”.
Since it is prices that express the relative value in socially necessary labor time of different commodities, it is prices that determine the quantity of various kinds of social goods and services to be produced; thus the relations and activities of people are determined by the impersonal and apparently objective forces of the market, by the exchange-values of the commodities they produce. The social relations of individuals come to be derived from an impersonal set of market forces, not from the individuals’ active and subjective wills. The subjectivity and independence of the laborer is alienated onto this new world of commodities which is governed by the laws of exchange-value, causing the latter to take on a mystical and magical form; that is, it appears to act as an independent and transcendent agent when it is really nothing other than an objective duplication of social human behavior. Just as the objective world of commodities is subjectivized so too is the subjective world of individuals objectified.
The money-form that the world of the commodity acquires through exchange conceals “the social character of private labor, and the social relations between the individual producers”. Individuals experience themselves in their work not as mutually dependent social agents expressing a collective will, but as fragmented and independent atoms, each dependent on the enigmatic interaction of various market forces. Commodity fetishism consists precisely in the fact that in a capitalist economy the relation of the workers to their objects is presented to them as a social relation between the products of their labor, not between themselves; the social relation between individuals assumes “the fantastic form of a relation between things”. The spontaneous, sensuous, and creative human world of subjects is inverted so that it is things which appear to be the essential reality; all that is human appears as object and all that is object appears human.
excursion 2: labor as essence/species life
Labor is the fundamental and essential activity of humanity, inasmuch as it is through labor that humanity expresses and makes objective its subjectivity in a self-conscious and inventive way; it is through (non-alienated) labor that the individual becomes a species being. “Man is a species being, not only because in practice and in theory he adopts the species as his object … but also because he treats himself as a universal and therefore a free being.” To be a species being is to be at once a spontaneous, creative, and self-conscious producer; it is to express your will and your subjectivity in the external, objective world through labor. The human individual produces even when it is free from physical needs, and therein lies its freedom.
The ability to produce when free, not only to merely perpetuate yourself or any other species, but in order to express your fundamental creativity and imagination in a conscious and self-aware fashion is nothing other than freedom. Only because the human produces consciously is he or she free. Through the labor of the social individual nature appears to the individual as her own work. The object of labor is simply the objectification of the individual as a species being, so that the individual takes herself and the species as the object of her work. To be a species being, therefore, is to be both the subject and object of history, the objective conditions which the individual finds herself in being consciously and sensuously produced in useful labor through the exercise of her own subjective will. However, by estranging the individual from her object, alienated labor estranges the individual from her species and transforms her activity into nothing other than a means to mere self-preservation: “Estranged labor reverses this relationship, so that it is just because the individual is a conscious being that he makes his life-activity, his essential being, a mere means to his existence.” The alienated producer can never by totally human.
excursion 3: anti-Semitism and domination
This new form of capitalist exploitation is just as real as naked force, yet its composition prevents it from making itself explicitly tangible, despite the limited perception among the exploited that something is amiss. This limited perception, according to Adorno and Horkheimer, accounts for anti-Semitism. Although the new rulers are no longer directly repressive, the masses can nevertheless sense injustice; it is their inability to locate this injustice which causes them to follow the cues of the exploiters and blame the Jews. The masses recognize that the liberal promise of total happiness and equality is a lie, this recognition arousing a still as of yet unconscious anger. Those who command the economy, and with it most of social life, need a scapegoat, and so settle on the Jews. We are presented thus with an instrumental racism: anti-Semitism is not qualitative, but rational and calculated, systematized by those who wish to conceal their domination.
Anti-Semitism is based above all else on the urge for equality – the exploited want to see others brought down to their level. “The covetous mobs – wherever they appeared – have always been aware deep down that ultimately all they would get out of it themselves would be the pleasure of seeing others robbed of all they possessed.” Anti-Semitic behavior is a “luxury for the masses”, generated “in situations where blinded men robbed of their subjectivity are set loose as subjects”. Anti-Semitism is therefore a form of partial desublimation, satisfying the masses’ urge for agency and the rulers’ urge to dominate all at once. At root what is at stake, however, is the need to conceal domination. The deterioration of anti-Semitism in no way diminishes the main thesis; the non-fulfillment of the capitalist promise is just explained away by shifting attention towards other no less convenient targets (Arab terrorists, for example): “Fascist leaders could just as easily replace the anti-Semitic plank in their platform by some other just as workers can be moved from one wholly rationalized production center to another.” All that matters is that the secrets of the modern form of domination are not found out.
E. Enlightenment as Myth
Domination is preserved, and it is here that the once liberatory project of Enlightenment is transformed into its opposite, into that phenomenon which it originally claimed to combat – myth. The original structure of mythology was temporally organized as a cyclical process, as fate and repetition; the existing world and its status quo were reflected in the consciousness of individuals as an eternal truth, a truth without possibility or hope. The individual views the conventional modes of behavior as the uniquely rational and legitimate ones. Purged of its other-worldly aspects (i.e. all of its affirmative qualitative content), myth enters the profane by way of instrumental Enlightenment thought: “The world as a gigantic analytic judgment, the only one left over from all the dreams of science, is of same mold as the cosmic myth which associated the cycle of spring and autumn with the kidnapping of Persephone.”
Enlightenment is as totalitarian as any absolute system, its untruth consisting in the fact that its process always remains decided from the beginning – its end result is always its starting point; “Explanations of the world as all or nothing are mythologies, and guaranteed roads to redemption are sublimated magic practices”. With each step that Enlightenment takes, with every quantitative advance in the techniques and instruments of scientific observation that Enlightenment develops, it finds itself becoming more and more like myth. The principle of immanence that Enlightenment proclaims, the explanation of every action and event as pre-determined repetition, is itself a myth. The wisdom of Enlightenment thought is the same as that of mythic thought; it is that logic which proclaims that
there is nothing new under the sun, because all the pieces in the meaningless game have been played, and all the great thoughts have already been thought, and because all possible discoveries can be construed in advance and all men are decided on adaptation as the means to self-preservation – that dry sagacity merely reproduces the fantastic wisdom that it supposedly rejects: the sanction of fate that in retribution relentlessly remakes what has already been.
The possibility of qualitative or total critique is denied in the face of the new absolutism which develops from the isolation and expansion of instrumental reason. Existing objective conditions are reified, preserved in thought in the new rationality which corresponds to their specific form of organization, capitalist domination reproducing itself with the structure of the complicit mode of rationality employed by Enlightenment. “With the extension of the bourgeois commodity economy, the dark horizon of myth is illumined by the sun of calculating reason, beneath whose cold rays the seed of the new barbarism grows to fruition.” Myth and reason become one.
II. Instrumental Rationality and Odysseus
F. The Project of Odysseus
The dialectic of Enlightenment is reproduced at the narrative level in the post-Trojan war voyages and adventures of Odysseus and his crew. The character of Odysseus represents an early breaking away from myth, the subject’s first attempt to separate himself from the primordial world of superstition and establish himself as an agent, a free and self-determining ego. Odysseus’ various encounters throughout The Odyssey serve to represent the direct confrontation between the new emerging self-consciousness and the outward expressions of mythic life. The victories of the hero signify the triumph of the self, the self as constructed or conceived of by that which will later become embodied in rational Enlightenment thought. Nevertheless, regardless of this affirmative positing of symbolic autonomy, and despite the relative prematurity of the rupture between myth and self, the seeds of regression, of which we described in section I above, can already latently be observed in Odysseus’ bourgeois instrumentalism.
The condition which Odysseus finds himself trapped within at the beginning of the Odyssey, a state inspired by the wrath of Poseidon, is viewed as mythic to extent that the subject is unable to establish himself within it as rational. It is a state which continually cuts off the subject from his needs and desires, forcing him instead to conform to the logic of the external factual world. This is the situation in which Odysseus finds himself confined; the external world which plays upon him is incompatible with his own self-development, and it is precisely this world which he must seek to conquer in order to dispel his own fear and trepidation. He must efface the mythic traditions which he finds all around him in order to assure his own self-preservation, and with it his autonomy. In his attempt to do so, however, he inadvertently creates a new myth, the myth of logical progress and self-betterment as the outward expression of the development of human reason.
The reason of Odysseus is the reason of instrumental rationality, which, as we saw, itself represents the impoverishment and abandonment of reason inasmuch as it demands a continuous assault on the spontaneity, creativity, and passion of thought. Instrumental rationality is progress for its own sake, a rigid and formulaic methodology which seeks efficiency solely for the sake of efficiency. It is the triumph of the quantitative and particular over the qualitative and total in all spheres of factual and social life, the reification and abstraction of all aspects of concrete human reality. No concept or category is safe from the leveling equivalence of the scientific method of instrumental rationality. Only such immediate fixity is capable of triumphing over nature: “The subjective spirit which cancels the animation of nature can master a despiritualized nature only by imitating its rigidity and despiritualizing itself in turn.”
Every existing entity, including human organisms themselves, become objects for the achievement of whatever specific intentions instrumental reason has posited for itself at any specific time, intentions which can never be challenged or questioned, for to do so would be a direct assault on the logic and hence legitimacy of instrumental reason, and therefore of survival itself. Odysseus never asks himself for what price is mere survival not worth, for such a question is not instrumental, and therefore outside of the sphere of comprehension of Enlightenment. Odysseus’ war against myth itself produces a new mythic structure, albeit one without the heart of myth; it is at once the degradation of not only informed autonomy and subjectivity, but of myth itself.
G. The Method of Odysseus
Odysseus presents himself as the prototype of the bourgeois individual. In his encounters he is always physically weaker than the oppositional nature which he confronts; it is clear that he cannot defeat the natural/mythic on the latter’s own terms. The principle weapon of Odysseus in his struggle against the mythic world is the bourgeois contract. The contract is only one manifestation of the quantifying sweep of Enlightenment, yet it poses a major problem for the enlightened subject. The entire point of the subject’s struggle with the pre-existing system is to establish a state of organization by which the enlightened can displace the mythic altogether and alone reap the benefits of subjectivity. Yet the whole method employed by the bourgeoisie (the substructural bearers of Enlightenment), laid down in its seemingly infinite web of regulations and contracts, can not help but be universally applicable. A contract assumes that each member involved is to benefit to the precise degree in which each sides’ gains outweigh their losses; the contract guarantees distributive parity. Yet how can the enlightened subject expect to gain the upper-hand against the unenlightened individual in the face of this seeming equivalence of the contract? The answer lies in evasion of the contract, or bourgeois cunning.
Whereas to Rousseau freedom is the ability of one to obey a law which one prescribes for oneself, to the bourgeois individual freedom is the ability to evade a law which one prescribes for oneself. In order for Odysseus to insure his survival he must “escape the legal conditions which enclose and threaten him, and which are, so to speak, laid down in every mythic figure”. Absolutely applied legal conditions threaten Odysseus to the extent that they allow for the perseverance of the pre-enlightened, which Enlightenment must negate in order to establish its autonomy. Odysseus must not simply disobey the contract, however, for doing so would constitute an explicit offense against instrumental rationality and Enlightenment themselves.
He must elude the contract while at the same time fulfilling it; cunning is defiance of the contract in rational form. Deception becomes a mode of exchange: the contract is fulfilled yet the other party is deceived. The cunning individual, lacking sufficient strength to physically subdue nature and establish his dominion in that manner, must deceive the pre-enlightened into entering a legal arrangement unto which the cunning can extract surplus benefit and keep the deceived bound. What the cunning individual may or may not realize, however, is that through his deception he preserves his survival only by means of denying the hope he wishes to fulfill: “The nimble-witted survives only at the price of his own dream, which he wins only by demystifying himself as well as the powers without.” Through artifice the self necessarily loses itself in its effort to preserve itself. Odysseus may very well succeed in annihilating the mythic categories which he finds all around him, but at the same time he succeeds in annihilating the essential categories of himself; “all the fame that he and the others win in this process serves merely to confirm that the title of hero is only gained at the price of the abasement and mortification of the instinct for complete, universal, and undivided happiness”.
H. Case Study 1: Odysseus and the Sirens
The contract between Odysseus and the Sirens is simple: to hear the Sirens’ song Odysseus must die. Circe explains the situation to him as follows:
Your next encounter will be with the Sirens, who bewitch everybody that approaches them. There is no home-coming for the man who draws near them unawares and hears the Sirens’ voices; no welcome from his wife, no little children brightening at their father’s return. For with the music of their song the Sirens cast their spell upon him, as they sit there in a meadow piled high with the mouldering skeletons of men, whose withered skin still hangs upon their bones.
Odysseus displays his cunning in his successful evasion of the contract; in order to ensure that he can hear the song, yet still survive, he ties himself to the mast and plugs his sailors’ ears with wax, physically separating the laborers from the song so that they will not be compelled to row towards the Sirens’ island. No matter how much Odysseus’ body may twist and contort on the mast, the crew is instructed to row full ahead, their concentration fixed on their immediate task. “‘The lovely voices came to across the water, and my heart was filled with such a longing to listen that with nod and frown I signed to my men to set me free. But they swung forward to their oars and rowed ahead'”. Odysseus’ deception is successful, but it comes at a heavy price. By conquering the song in advance he does not experience the moment in its totality; the true power and beauty of the song rests in the risk that the listener must undertake, a risk which Odysseus has already neutralized. In order to survive Odysseus must surrender some of who he is – his ingenuity has robbed him of his free will. The contract between Odysseus and the Sirens is that the former can hear the song, but must afterwards die; Odysseus finds a loophole in the contract and is able to evade it, but this circumvention of the agreement represents at the same time a loss of his self.
The Sirens’ episode also reproduces within itself the myth of rational labor, making explicit the alienation and domination of production. If Odysseus represents the proto-bourgeois, then his rowers are certainly the proto-proletariat. Theirs is not a free labor, self-consciously directed and socially duplicated externally. The labor of Odysseus’ crew is always other-directed, always managed by those who are presumed to best know how to organize labor efficiently, i.e. instrumentally. Any attempt on the part of the laborers to assert their own will is met with compulsion, as can be seen in the case of the Lotus eaters (it is true, however, that the Lotus eaters’ choices do not in themselves represent genuine choices, as the very process of eating the lotus has the effect of dissolving the subject’s capacity for rational thought and substituting instead a condition of befuddled stupor): after eating the lotus “all thoughts of reporting to us or escaping were banished from [the crew’s] mind.
All they now wished for was to stay where they were with the Lotus-eaters, to browse on the lotus, and forget that they had a home to return to. I had to use force to bring them back to the ships, and they wept on the way, but once on board I dragged them under the benches and left them in irons. If rational deception is not successful in producing alienated labor, physical force provides a convenient contingency plan. The labor of Odysseus’ rowers can never be a free labor, then, for it is performed always under pressure, with their senses stopped. In the 1844 Manuscripts Marx maintains that a non-alienated labor must at the same time be a sensuous labor, that is, the subject of labor must become an object of the senses.
The laborer must have objects outside of himself which are subject to the complete expression of the specifically human senses, now considered as a totality. Just as within the Critique of Pure Reason, sensuousness becomes an ontological category within the definition of humanity’s essence. Odysseus’ workers, with their wax-plugged ears and mechanical organization of movement – their systematic rowing reproducing the technological ‘back and forth’ chugging of pistons – are directly and explicitly cut off from their own sensuous lives. This is to be sharply distinguished from Odysseus’ early pattern of labor, which, despite not being an ideal form of non-alienated work, nevertheless allows for a much fuller and richer autonomy for the producing subject. Odysseus describes the complicated and meticulous process he undertakes in the construction of his bed, produced freely in accordance with his own aesthetic standards:
Inside the court there was a long-leaved olive-tree, which had grown to full height with stem as thick as a pillar. Round this I built my room of close-set stone-work, and when that was finished, I roofed it over thoroughly, and put in a solid, neatly fitted, double door. Next I lopped all the twigs off the olive, trimmed the stem from the foot up, rounded it smoothly and carefully with my adze and trued it to the line, to make my bedpost. This I drilled through where necessary, and used as a basis for the bed itself, which I worked away at till that too was done, when I finished it off with an inlay of gold, silver, and ivory, and fixed a set of purple straps across the frame.
Separated from the external constraints imposed on those who have to labor in order to physically reproduce themselves, Odysseus is free to express himself voluntarily in the enjoyable and fulfilling projects he chooses for himself. “His do-it-yourself effort is an imitation of the actual labor of a craftsman, from which, in the framework of differentiated conditions of property ownership, he has long been necessarily excluded. He enjoys this for the freedom to do what is really superfluous, and as far as he is concerned confirms his power of disposal over those who have to do precisely that kind of work in order to live.” This type of labor, however, is itself negated when the agent Odysseus finds himself struggling to preserve his being in his encounters with the mythic figures. Odysseus’ desire to displace the mythic and affirm himself is accomplished by utilizing the techniques of instrumental rationality; in doing so Odysseus ends up sacrificing his own freedom as readily as he sacrifices that of his men.
I. Case Study 2: Odysseus and Polyphemus
It is clear to Odysseus from his first encounter with the Cyclopes that he dealing with a people very far removed from the logic of instrumental rationality. The Cyclopes live in relative independence and isolation; they have no systematic organization of labor, nor do they have any laws or assemblies. They live in a communal society as of yet “unorganized by the yardstick of fixed property and hierarchy”. Odysseus describes himself the Cyclopes’ land and social organization: “a fierce uncivilized people who never lift a hand to plant or plough but put their trust in Providence”; “All the crops they require spring up unsown and untilled, wheat and barley and the vines whose generous clusters give the wine ripened for them the timely rains”; “it is by no means a poor country capable of yielding any crop in due season”; they have “no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs”; “each man is lawgiver to his children and his wives”. The Cyclopes live and depend solely upon the bounty of nature, the same nature which Odysseus fears so much and must conquer at any cost.
In Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus the Cyclops Enlightenment thought becomes derailed. Originally structured to combat myth and reinject sovereignty into the individual, Enlightenment soon reverts to myth and begins to function solely to reproduce itself and its elements. Odysseus’ battle with Polyphemus is carried out not in an effort to negate myth, but rather to negate that which challenges the legitimacy of instrumental logic and the peculiar form of domination the latter generates.
Odysseus proclaims that his contempt for the Cyclopes is founded upon the latter’s inherent savagery and barbarism, yet as Odysseus himself concedes, the Cyclopes are considered savage and barbarous only to the extent that they reject the authority of the gods: he initially vows to discover, for example, “whether they are brutal and lawless savages or hospitable and god-fearing people”. Polyphemus answers this query himself when he proclaims that “We Cyclopes care not a jot for Zeus with his aegis, nor for the rest of the blessed gods, since we are much stronger than they.” Examples of the Cyclopes’ truly human (as opposed to mere savage) qualities abound: when Polyphemus is blinded the other Cyclopes come to his aid when they hear his cries, despite Odysseus’ claims that do not care about anyone: “[The other Cyclopes], hearing his screams, came up from every quarter, and gathering outside the cave asked him what ailed him”; Polyphemus shows a rare tenderness when dealing with his flock of sheep: “Next he sat down to milk his ewes and bleating goats, which he did methodically, putting her young to each mother as he finished”; and of course Polyphemus’ speech to his leading ram, where he inquires as to whether the latter’s sluggishness is a cripple caused by the former’s suffering: “Why are you the last of the flock to pass out of the cave, you who have never lagged behind the sheep.
Are you grieved for your master’s eye, blinded by a wicked man and his accursed friends”. What all of this shows is that, to Odysseus, Polyphemus and the Cyclopes must be defeated not because they are brutal and barbaric, but rather because they give the lie to the notion that a free society is incapable of being organized independent of the logic of instrumental reason and rational social domination; the existence of Polyphemus is the denial of bourgeois rationality.
Odysseus’ method of defeating Polyphemus is the same as that which he employs in his confrontation with the Sirens: bourgeois cunning applied through the rational evasion of the contract. While imprisoned in Polyphemus’ cave with his men, Odysseus makes the Cyclops an offer of wine – “Here Cyclops, have some wine to wash down that meal of human flesh, and find out for yourself what kind of vintage was stored away in our ship’s hold” – and the Cyclops promises that in return he will eat Odysseus last. The wine here serves as a wage, a false equivalence masking an (in this case potential) inequality. Odysseus keeps his promise to Polyphemus – he shares his wine with him – , but he uses this wine to inebriate Polyphemus in order to blind the Cyclops, and through this blinding appropriates a surplus-value not included within the original promise: Odysseus’ not being eaten (last).
The hero’s crime is further covered up through his utilization of the double entendre. After Odysseus has blinded Polyphemus he proclaims himself “Nobody” in order to elude the latter and the Cyclopes who have come to his aid: “‘O my friends, it’s Nobody’s treachery, no violence, that is doing me to death’. ‘Well then,’ they answered, in a way that settled the matter, ‘if nobody is assaulting you in your solitude, you must be sick. Sickness comes from almighty Zeus and cannot be helped.'”. The Cyclopes cannot see through the trickery of the double name, for their minds are not yet systematic and are incapable of solving Odysseus’ bourgeois mental games. Their inability to solve Odysseus’ cunning intellectual problem is a testament to their traditional way of life, a way of life not yet capable of comprehending the new rationality and logic of modernity. But again, as with the Sirens, Odysseus is only able to escape the clutches of the other by “imitating the amorphous”, by declaring himself to be Nobody and consequently by denying his own identity.
Yet as a young and still emerging self, Odysseus has not yet mastered the asceticism of the fully developed bourgeois individual, and therefore becomes conscious of the self-violence latent in his denial. He learns a dangerous lesson sailing away from the Cyclopes’ island, when, in an effort to reclaim the identity he realizes he has lost, he shouts his true name in a triumphant display of victory. It is a conscious abandonment of instrumental rationality, an abandonment which nearly leads to his downfall, as Polyphemus, hearing Odysseus’ voice, rains boulders down upon him. “The cunning of the clever man who assumes the form of stupidity turns into stupidity as soon as he surrenders that form.” To break with the method of instrumentality is not only unhelpful, but is perilous, the danger coming, furthermore, from those very individuals which have been deceived and wronged by the enlightened. The word knows that it is always physically weaker than the nature that it deceives and dominates; too many words (i.e. a fuller and more comprehensive conception of reason) allows the dominated to recognize the deception and reassert their autonomy.
J. Conclusion: Odysseus and Myth
This is the pattern of all of Odysseus’ journeys. In order to survive Odysseus must always suppress some aspect of himself and move forward rationally, by moving forward rationally destroying reason in full, annihilating the creative, the self, the other, and nature. When Odysseus finally reaches Ithaca after twenty years of wandering he is only an empty shadow of his former self; he has mortgaged his soul and his creative energy for rational survival. His transformation is represented in Penelope’s inability to recognize the man who was once her husband: “For a long while Penelope, overwhelmed by wonder, sat there without a word. But her eyes were busy, at one moment resting full on his face, and at the next falling on the ragged clothes that made him seem a stranger once again.” It is only when Penelope herself makes use of cunning, in putting Odysseus to the test with regards to his home-made bed, that she finally excepts that this is the man who was once her husband.
The adventures of Odysseus, then, reproduce the dialectic of Enlightenment. The hero begins his journey immersed in an alien world which produces fear and panic within his psyche. In order to banish fear and assert himself he must conquer the mythic and irrational externality, choosing as his weapon the logic and techniques of instrumental rationality. This instrumentalism is successful in vanquishing Odysseus’ mythic foes, but at the same time it succeeds in banishing all positive qualitative content from the subject. The methodology of instrumentalism allows only for the existence of that material which can be subjected to its abstract mathematical formulas. The world becomes transformed into a giant probability, cause and effect being the only relevant historical categories. The functioning of the technological machine proceeds independently of any conception of what constitutes the just and the good. Odysseus always moves forward, mostly oblivious to the fact that his survival and his happiness have organized themselves into an antagonistic and hostile relationship. The instrumental method takes on a life of its own, and soon begins to function only to reproduce itself and its legitimacy. Even when all myth has been banished it continues to operate, only now serving the interests of pure domination. Rational thought and myth coalesce as the former produces the latter from the material of itself.